September 24, 2021
Along the banks of the Thu Bon River in Central Vietnam, just a short distance from Cua Dai (Great Gate) where the river meets the sea, sits an iconic city. Its economic heyday ended more than two centuries ago and only 150,000 residents remain, yet Hoi An typically draws up to 4 million visitors every year with its rich cultural heritage and stunning natural setting.
Tourism forms a major part of the city’s economy, yet also causes tensions as the city struggles to balance the demand for development with preserving its natural and cultural assets; to meet the expectations of visitors while providing for its own population; and to protect itself against the increasing ravages of climate change.
A CITY OF BUILT AND NATURAL HERITAGE
Hoi An owes its current popularity to its position as a prominent entrepôt in Southeast Asia from the 15th to 19th century, and the preservation of architectural heritage from this period. This prominence was the result of a geographic jackpot. Upstream from Hoi An is a land of treasures, endowed with agarwood, cinnamon, ivory, gold and bronze. Drawing on this trove, the Thu Bon River delta became famous for its craft villages, many of which still produce exquisite souvenirs for boutique shops in Hoi An today.
This geography was also a factor in Hoi An’s decline, as silt deposits made first the Thu Bon River, and then the Co Co River, impassable by major ships; this decline was accelerated by the country’s civil war in the 18th century and isolationist policy in the 19th century. The rapid decline of the town enabled its preservation, and Hoi An was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1999. While many visitors are drawn solely to the old town of Hoi An, if we draw a transect from Hoi An to the coast, we find four zones of distinctive character: the heritage town centre; the craft villages; the farm areas; and the coast.
Large contiguous areas of farmland remain, opening scenic views from the city across the vast hinterland. For many years, the town’s conservative approach to development has led to the preservation of this farmland and the rural character of its suburbs. This is now changing, as the city grows in both population and prosperity, transitioning into a service economy amidst climate change that causes regular inundation and saltwater intrusion of low-lying areas.
This area is a frontier between the old and new Hoi An, a district in rapid transition. Small fishing villages are interspersed with an ever-growing number of tourist resorts and new residential developments built to accommodate the flood of tourists who come to visit Hoi An, and of Vietnamese who seek to relocate or buy holiday homes in this idyllic setting.
ECOLOGICAL CAPITAL AS A NEW ENGINE FOR GROWTH
The 2020 pandemic and severe floods have reminded the locals that they cannot depend on tourism and the city’s built heritage to make a living. The pandemic reduced tourist revenue by over 80 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019, and forced 90 per cent of shops in the old town to close down. However, it also has the unexpected result of revitalising the city’s farmlands, as residents sought alternative means of food security, a stable source of income, and domestic tourism offerings that avoided crowded, narrow streets. Many of the 11,000 locals who lost jobs in the tourism sector have returned to their farmlands or fishing boats, with the rich regional assets once again offering the community a source of livelihood. This return to the land may be a sign of the city’s shifting priorities.
The pandemic has the unexpected result of revitalising the city’s farmlands, as residents sought alternative means of food security, a stable source of income.
THE NEW BALANCING ACT
Protecting the mangrove forests to the east of Hoi An is not an easy task. The development of a coastal highway initiated by the national government to connect Da Nang to Hoi An and the southern bank of the Thu Bon River has turned the coastal district into the city’s gateway, and a tourism hotspot.
At the same time, the natural and cultural attractions of Hoi An have brought not only tourists, but also domestic buyers seeking holiday homes. Highway-adjacent plots have rocketed in value, replacing aquaculture farms and mangrove forests with waterfront resorts and residential developments. These developments sit precariously on low-lying plots along the Co Co River, protected from the sea by only a narrow stretch of land. Developers and designers alike should treat these plots with care; however, only a few developments attempt this.
One such development is enCity’s Casamia project, one of the first large-scale developments along the new coastal highway. Where conventional developments use infill to raise the land and embankments or dykes to keep the water out, Casamia’s master plan optimises land values by opening the site to the Co Co River, creating an internal water body and a park to provide every parcel with access to open space.
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Dzung Do Nguyen is an urban planner and designer, specialising in planning and implementation for fast-growing regions, emerging cities and urban revitalisation across Asia. He is currently CEO and Senior Principal of enCity, and also teaches a graduate urban planning studio at the National University of Singapore. Dzung’s work explores new frontiers of urban innovation in order to provide market-responsive, context-sensitive and implementation-ready urban solutions. In Hoi An, he has engaged with private, government and community stakeholders on a variety of projects, from small-scale ones such as playgrounds to large- scale master planning developments.
Heather Banerd is an urban and landscape designer, and freelance writer on the subject of sustainability. Based in Singapore, she has a background in architecture and is a graduate of the MSc Integrated Sustainable Design programme at the National University of Singapore. In her work, she strives to create meaningful, ecocentric urban spaces that will contribute to building a sustainable and self-sufficient future.
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